The Stronsay Beast
Although stories of sea serpents,
and mythical sea-dwellers, abound in Orkney,
there have actually been a surprising number of documented, historical creature "sightings"
that have now entered the lore of the islands.
Perhaps the most famous of these
encounters took place in Stronsay.
There, in 1808, the first, and
perhaps best-known, of a series of episodes relating to the carcasses of, what appeared to be, long-necked sea creatures
were washed ashore.
The Stronsay beast was first
sighted on September 25, 1808, lying on rocks at Rothiesholm
Head, in the south-east of the island.
There, John Peace, a local man,
fishing off the coast, was puzzled by the sight of seabirds
flocking around what looked like an animal's corpse
on the rocks.
Turning his little boat, and
watched by another Stronsay man, George Sherar, Peace made his
way to the carcass. But what he found was unlike anything he
had encountered before. Lying on the rocks were the remains
of a large serpent-like creature, with a long, eel-like neck and three
pairs of legs.
At the time, the corpse was
inaccessible, so closer examination was impossible.
However, ten days later, one of Orkney's notorious gales blew
the decomposing remains ashore, where they were found just below
the high water mark.
Sherar now had his chance to
examine the corpse, which he did - meticulously studying it
and measuring the dimensions of the "sea monster".
The beast was described as serpentine,
measuring exactly 55 feet long, with a neck measuring ten feet
three inches long. The head was
like that of a sheep, with eyes bigger than a seal's. Its skin
was grey and rough to the touch. However, if stroked from the
head down the back, it was said to be as "smooth as velvet".
Six "limbs" extended
from the body and a bristly mane of long, wiry hair grew from
the beast's shoulders, down to its tail. These silver coloured
bristles were said to glow eerily in the dark.
"Its flesh was described
as being like 'coarse, ill-coloured beef, entirely covered
with fat and tallow and without the least resemblance or affinity
to fish'. The skin, which was grey coloured and had an elastic
texture was said to be about two inches thick in parts."
of the Stronsay Beast as reported in The Orcadian newspaper.
By the end of September, news of Stronsay's
monster had spread far and wide.
Because the remains had rotted away to practically
nothing, the four men who had originally examined the carcass were
taken to Kirkwall. There, they had to swear to the magistrate that their information was the truth.
A decomposing shark?
Before long, details of the incredible
find reached the ears of a Natural History Society in Edinburgh.
At the society's meeting in November 1808, the creature was given
the Latin name Halsydrus Pontoppidani. The name, meaning Pontoppidan's
Water Snake of the Sea, was in honour of the 18th century
Norwegian bishop, who collected reports of sea-monsters.
Shortly afterward, the naturalist
Sir Everard Home read of the Stronsay Beast. Intrigued by the tales
of a sea-monster, he viewed what was left of the evidence. He was convinced, however, that the creature was nothing more than the remains of a decomposing basking shark
- an animal fairly common in the waters around Orkney.
the vertebrae of the "monster" with those known to belong to a basking shark,
Home found them to be identical.
But how could the long necked creature
washed up on a Stronsay beach be the remains of a basking shark? The answer lies in the physiology
of the basking shark, and, in particular, how it decays after death.
First the shark's jaws - which are attached
only by a small piece of flesh - drop off leaving what looks like
the remains of a long neck and a small skull.
Then, as only the upper
half of the animal's tail fin carries the spine, the lower half rots
away and provides a convincing serpentine tail. When the dorsal fin
begins to decompose, the remaining rays can have the appearance of
a hairlike mane. The monster's six legs can simply be explained away
as the remains of the shark's lower fins.
But the mystery doesn't end there.
Even if the Stronsay Beast was nothing more than a dead basking
shark, an element of mystery still surrounds the saga.
The longest recorded basking shark
measured a mere 40 feet - 15 feet smaller than the remains
of the Stronsay Beast. At 55 feet long from tip to tail, the shark
that decomposed to form the Stronsay Beast must have been
a monster in its own right.
So was the Stronsay Beast really
a shark? Or is there another explanation? An unknown species of
giant shark perhaps?
With all tales such as these, sometimes
it's better not to know.